LEWISTON — A candle used as a light source, after electricity had been turned off for non-payment, caused a fire that killed 9-year-old Taylor McQueeney early Monday morning on River Street.
According to Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, a candle left burning overnight ignited a bed before quickly spreading throughout the apartment. The third-story apartment was being rented by Craig Austin, 39, who received minor burns to his feet from the burning mattress.
Also in the apartment at the time of the fire, according to McCausland, were McQueeney's cousins, 18-year-old Nathan Cote and his brother, Justin Cote, 25. Neither man was injured.
Family members interviewed Monday evening by the Sun Journal said the Cote brothers were distant relatives of the young girl, who spent a lot of time with 18-year-old Nate Cote.
"I usually let her over there, she spent a lot of time with Nate," said McQueeney's mother, Rebecca Cote. "She really looked up to him like a big brother."
According to police, the men ran an extension cord from the second story to power a television and video games, but used candles for light, confirming what neighbors had previously reported.
McQueeney lived across the street from that apartment with her mother, Rebecca Cote, and three younger brothers. She had been staying overnight at Austin's apartment.
Rebecca Cote said that her boyfriend, Charles Barnes, allowed her daughter to
spend the night with Nate and Justin Cote. She was unaware that her
daughter was gone until Justin Cote came to get her early Monday morning shortly after the fire broke out because she was in another room when the girl left.
The fire was reported around 3:30 a.m., and McQueeney's body was found shortly after 8 a.m., according to the State Fire Marshal's Office.
"The firefighters, after she was found, they came by here really upset," said Robin Roslund, 53, who lives in the neighborhood with her husband.
Crowds of people lined the street and yards on River and Oxford streets watching firefighters battle the fire that started at 52 River St., catching the neighboring 48 River St. building on fire and melting the vinyl siding off two other buildings. The roofs of the buildings at 48 and 52 River Street collapsed, hindering firefighters' ability to get into the structures. As many as 50 people were evacuated from five apartment buildings.
"It's been a very stubborn fire," Fire Chief Paul Leclair said.
Kenneth Ouellette of North Monmouth, owner of 48 River St. and an adjacent building, said seven families were displaced.
"We believe that the building that was most heavily involved is where the body was found," according to Leclair.
"There was certainly the danger of other properties catching fire because of the proximity of the buildings in what we call 'Little Canada'," said Leclair. "A very intense, very condensed tenement district."
At least one displaced resident agreed with Leclair. Levon Lawson, 30, lives in 46 River St. with two roommates. He was one of only two residents left at at the emergency shelter set up by the United Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross at Lewiston High School.
"The fire took out two buildings, but it could have taken out more," Lawson said. "Those buildings are definitely too close for comfort for me."
Lawson, like many who spent the day at the shelter, left Monday night to return to his apartment to determine if anything was salvageable. American Red Cross volunteers said all of the displaced residents found other places to spend the night — except for two families who were put up in hotels due to disabilities. Volunteer Yvette Lizotte said that the shelter would remain open in case anyone returned and would serve breakfast Tuesday morning. A team of four fire marshal investigators, led by Sgt. Joel Davis, were in Lewiston Monday to investigate the fires.
According to city property records, 52 River St. is owned by Rick Dade of Joliet, Ill. The building was valued at $62,640.
Ouellette's property next door was valued at $85,080.
Joshua Hanson, who lived on the first floor at 52 River St., said he woke up, smelled the smoke and heard fire alarms going off. He ran through the building knocking on doors to wake people, before escaping the flames.
Eugene Rand, who lived in one of the buildings damaged by heat, was evacuated with other fire victims but returned to the fire later in the morning to search for his pets. One of his cats woke him up around 4 a.m. Rand said his pet waking him was how he knew about the fire.
"I think a lot of people are sad that this had to happen," said Paul Temple, 48, who lives across the street. "We're all watching out for one another. This is inexcusable."
Temple was one of several residents milling about Monday night just outside the yellow caution tape blocking off the charred remains of the building.
The fire victims were initially relocated to the Travel Lodge, the former Chalet Motel, on Lisbon Street where the Red Cross started the intake process to get names, address and immediate needs of each family. According to several victims, the motel owner asked them to leave the common dining area because of their odor, lingering from the fire, which would have been disturbing to his customers who would be dining there.
"I couldn't believe they were making us leave," Rand said, "It was horrible upon horrible. We were already going through horrible."
Travel Lodge owner Kenny Barot acknowledged that he asked the group to leave, but he said it was because some of them had brought their dogs with them and he couldn't have dogs in the dining area. He said he asked them to wait outdoors or in the lobby, but did open a hotel room for them to use the rest room if needed.
Barot said the Red Cross had called in advance to let him know the victims would be arriving, but he was unprepared for the 30 or so people who showed up. "It was more than I was expecting," Barot said.
The Red Cross relocated the victims to its office on Lisbon Street, and later established the shelter at the Lewiston High School where cots were being set up for an overnight stay.
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